What Shane Gillis Proved on 'SNL' (2024)


After being fired from the show in 2019 for using slurs, the comedian returned to host as a more thoughtful version of himself.

By Jeremy Gordon
What Shane Gillis Proved on'SNL' (1)

What Shane Gillis Proved on'SNL' (2)

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The comedian Shane Gillis is fond of joking about all of the things he knows he looks like: a high-school football coach; a possible parking-lot rapist; a police-brutality skeptic, someone who asks to “see the rest of the body-cam footage before we jump to any conclusions.” He’ll pose as a recognizable genre of buffoon or creep, before subverting those expectations. In his Netflix special, Beautiful Dogs, he pretended to be a rah-rah jingoist before lamenting America’s epidemic of gun violence; he also joked about becoming an “early-onset Republican” before noting that his emergent concerns boil down to “Why are Black guys in every commercial?” and “Mermaids are white!” In many of his routines, he embodies the anxieties felt by a certain stratum of straight white men about their waning cultural influence—and then he makes these anxieties the butt of the joke.

But last weekend, during his opening monologue as the host of Saturday Night Live, Gillis looked simply anxious. “This place is extremely well lit,” he observed from the stage. “I can see everyone not enjoying it. Just the most nervous I’ve ever been.” Like many comedians, Gillis seemingly does not lack confidence, but this gig carried a different pressure. The episode was somewhat of a homecoming: In 2019, he was announced as one of the show’s new cast members. But almost right away, footage surfaced of Gillis using racist and hom*ophobic slurs such as “Chink” and “fa*ggot” on his own podcast, and he was quickly fired. In a different era, that moment might have killed his career. Instead, Gillis went on to become extremely successful—and rather than suggesting that he deserved to be rehired, his SNL return demonstrated that he’s probably better on his own.

In fact, Gillis would likely have never achieved his current level of success had he not been fired by SNL. The podcast where he made those remarks is now the top Patreon account in the world; he regularly sells out stand-up shows across the country; last year, he released Beautiful Dogs, which was well received; today, it was announced that Netflix has ordered a scripted show and another special from him. Considering the social penalties foisted on most public figures caught using offensive slurs, this good fortune may seem surprising. But the Gillis incident transpired at the nexus of several phenomena: ongoing debates about free speech in comedy, spearheaded by celebrity performers such as Ricky Gervais and Dave Chappelle; a tandem backlash to “cancel culture” and the identity-based sensitivities associated with “wokeness”; and, finally, the expansion of an independent media ecosystem, centered on podcasts where people can run their mouth without much oversight, and connect directly with paying fans.

This is perhaps a lot to lay at the feet of a comedian who, after he was fired, never leaned into the perception that he’d been “canceled” for his views. “I don’t want to be a victim—I want to be a comedian,” he said on Joe Rogan’s podcast. Yet it’s hard not to look at the explosive popularity of a man who’d become infamous for saying slurs, and conclude that some people wanted to reward him for this. In a 2022 New Yorker profile, published right as his resurgent career seemed to be cresting, he acknowledged some of his more unfortunate new fans: “Dudes would come up and be, like, ‘Chi-i-i-ink!’ I’d be, like, ‘No. That’s not it.’” And in the buildup to his SNL appearance, a narrative took hold among some of these louche adherents: Gillis had been unfairly canceled, and he’d succeeded anyway because he was just too funny. With his SNL appearance, he had the opportunity to throw it back in everyone’s face—like the late Norm Macdonald, who was fired from the show in 1998. The following year, when Macdonald was asked to return as host, he excoriated the program for being unfunny and desperate in his defiant opening monologue.

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Gillis did not do this. He did not even come close, actually. Here was his powerful, daring opening line: “Thank you very much. It’s, uh—yeah, I’m here.” He brought up being fired, to warm laughter, then asked that nobody Google why he was fired. “I probably shouldn’t be up here,” he said. He pointed out that his parents were in the crowd, before telling a joke about how young children are close with their mothers: “Do you remember when you were just a gay little boy? Every little boy is just their mom’s gay best friend.” He modified a routine from his Netflix special about his family members with Down syndrome that was both light (“They’re the only ones having a good time pretty consistently. They’re not worried about the election.”) and just a bit provocative (he concluded with a hypothetical scenario where his niece is bullied for being “retarded” and instantly defended by her brothers, who beat up the bullies).

In one of these jokes, Gillis was poking fun at his own enthusiasm for loving his mother; in another, he directly used the insult most likely to be thrown at someone with an intellectual disability, rather than a euphemism. Yet for some people, it’s just funny to hear the words gay and retarded. This is part of why Gillis is allusively described as a comedian who appeals to red-state voters, even though he openly mocks Donald Trump (while also posing with him) and said in his special, about President Joe Biden, “I’m rooting for the guy.”

Gillis’s straight-male-whiteness was a recurring feature of his SNL sketches, where his roles included: the father of a straitlaced Catholic family on vacation in Jamaica, who attend an unexpectedly rowdy church service; an oafish office worker who keeps asking out his female co-workers, to no avail; a game-show contestant who’s incapable of identifying any famous Black people (not even Oprah!). Some of these bits were mildly funny; most of them weren’t, though not in an especially unique way. SNL trends toward congenial palatability, and Gillis was just providing his version of that. (The night’s worst sketch was the cold open, where a group of Republican senators complain about Trump while continuing to support him, and in which Gillis didn’t even appear.)

In general, Gillis’s comedy benefits from his ability to immediately contradict himself, whether rhetorically or expressively—he may have just said something offensive, but of course he doesn’t mean it like that, and your laughter is a benchmark of whether or not you believe him. In these sketches, he was just reading the lines as they were written, and the fact that he visibly broke character at multiple points showed his lack of discipline with the form. The sketches he’s uploaded online as part of his “Gilly and Keeves” comedy team are, I would say, equally not very funny; he’s much better as a stand-up than as a performer.

Back in 2019, when Gillis’s offensive remarks first came to light, he said, “I’m happy to apologize to anyone who’s actually offended by anything I’ve said.” Well, I was offended, and it wasn’t just some virtuous pose—it was because he’d repeatedly said something offensive, in service of jokes that weren’t even good. Slurs have a violent power because of their bluntness. There might be a great many creative epithets used to denigrate Asian people, as I was reminded about recently when watching the 2008 film Gran Torino, in which Clint Eastwood plays a cantankerous old man who owns a thesaurus full of them—but the directness of Chink feels among the worst. I didn’t think Gillis should be consigned to a dungeon for saying it, but I was exhausted that it had to be explained to some non-Asian people why he shouldn’t say it, regardless of artistic intent. You hear a particular word too many times, and you don’t want to “take a joke” about it. That Gillis might be rewarded with a posting to one of America’s most venerated comedic institutions seemed like a pointed insult—and I understand the frustration of watching him receive a hero’s return, as some unspoken referendum on when certain people should be forgiven for saying slurs.

On this front, Gillis appears to have at least become a smidge more thoughtful. Though I don’t listen to his podcast, new footage of him saying “Chink” has not come into existence—and, as he told The New Yorker, he’s tried really hard to snip “the F-word” from his vocabulary. In some regards, he has also treated being fired as a challenge to get better at what he does, which is write and perform jokes. I cracked up a lot while watching Beautiful Dogs, because of the way he seemed to inhabit and intermix the perspectives of both the offensive and the offended—and, on balance, tilt in the direction of decency. I did, in fact, believe that he didn’t mean it like that. Though his SNL appearance was remarkably tame by his usual standards, you could sense these conciliatory instincts in his monologue and sketches: He said offensive words, but the joke was not simply that he was saying them. Gillis doesn’t make my favorite type of comedy, but he has a style and perspective; it’s not empty provocation.

Some reviews claimed that Gillis had bombed his monologue, but I’m not so sure about that; I took his nervousness as an honest admission that the night was unconventional and weird, but he was going to get through it. Stand-up comics are always reading the room, and on Saturday, Gillis appeared to be full of humility about the opportunity to prove himself on this particular platform. “Thank you guys so much—this means a lot to me to be here; I really appreciate it,” he said, sounding sincere, during his sign-off. In a sense, there were no clearly defined winners and losers among the canceled and those who’d done the canceling—just different approaches to comedy, and the productive tension of watching them attempt to co-exist in the same space. More important, was Gillis’s episode funny? It’s in the eye of the beholder, but I laughed a little.

Jeremy Gordon is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

What Shane Gillis Proved on 'SNL' (2024)


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